The Tab War: Blackberry’s PlayBook vs Apple’s iPad – Part 1

First things first, if you are here for a pure technical review, then you’ll be disappointed. If you want to know how the 1Ghz Dual core OMAP processor measures up against the 1Ghz dual core A5, please head over to Engadget, ZDNet or similar tech forums.

This review is a pure user feedback exercise on the BlackBerry PlayBook with the occasional comparison to the iPad to put things into perspective. If you do not have the time to read the full review now, scroll down and read the words highlighted in bold and underlined. They are the key take-aways of the review.

I got my PlayBook on 22nd June, 2011 which was also the date of the official PlayBook launch in India (Only Wi-fi was launched, 3G not expected before December 2011). I bought the same from Mobile Zone in Fountain Plaza, Egmore, Chennai. I had pre-booked the 32 GB variant by paying a small deposit and this entitled me to a free HDMI cable & a leather case. The pre-launch offer with the freebies came up to Rs. 27,990, Rs. 32,900 & Rs. 37,900 for the 16, 32 & 64 GB versions. I did hear however of people being able to drive home a bargain (upto Rs. 500 less) when purchased from the smaller dealers rather than large format stores like Croma. The freebies are not in the box nor handed over on delivery of the tablet. They are shipped directly by Redington (or Ingram Microtech – the two distributors for PlayBook in India) to your address as given during pre-booking.

Straight off, the packaging looked typically RIM-versus-Apple. Upon opening the box, you are greeted by a mix of black and candy blue packaging which was a bewildering. Not ugly but surprising for sure given its not a color we have ever come to associate with Blackberry. Looking beyond, the first thing you notice is the neat cloth sleeve which the PlayBook comes in with stylish BB branding etched on to one side. A very neat touch, given the Apple comes ready-to-break, straight out of the box. The ergonomics of pulling the pad out of the sleeve and back into it might drive a few nuts but hey, you never really enjoyed condoms did you?

PlayBook size finger

PlayBook’s size compared against my finger

If you are an iPad (1/2) owner, what will immediately strike you is the compact form factor of the PlayBook. At 425 gms, the PlayBook is considerably lighter than the Wi-Fi iPad 2 which is almost 50% heavier at 601 gms. The dimensions are compact and the hold-ability of the PlayBook is far better than the iPad’s weird size. While the glass casing on the front is made of the same Gorilla Glass made by Corning for the iPad, the back casing of the device has a fantastic textured feel which gives you a good grip when gaming or using the pad off a table, just like it is meant to be.

Unlike the iPads, the PlayBook has no button on the front and has Blackberry etched onto the bottom part of the frame – a branding overkill that Apple would never do.
The top of the frame is lined with 4 buttons – Power, Volume -, Play / Pause / Mute & Volume +. The tactile feel of the buttons isn’t the best and the power button is especially tiny and annoying to use.

PlayBook buttons

Image Courtesy: BlackberryOS.com

Holding the microscopic power button down, you boot up the device and here’s where the ghosts of RIM’s past come to catch up and haunt you. Just like all other Blackberry devices, the PlayBook’s boot up takes excessively long, when compared to Apple’s products, especially the new iPad 2 which also now features a dual core processor. If you thought you were past the annoying bit, you were not! Upon first boot up, you are required to download a 330 mb software update which on a 2mbps Indian DSL line (Metro cities) will take you about 30 minutes. So to note, when opening your box, ensure you are in a Wi-Fi zone. Besides the software update, setup takes less than 10 minutes and is easily doable by most people themselves.

RIM has gone step ahead for the Indian market and offered a 90-day free technical support for anyone who buys the PlayBook. While it is a very attractive proposition, I am surprised they arent making a bigger noise about it.

Once done with the software update, you’ll then need the next most important piece of hardware required to get the best out of the PlayBook – your BlackBerry mobile. The PlayBook is pretty useless for the non-housewife, adult segment of the market who do not have a BlackBerry phone. I will elaborate on this further into the review. Your PlayBook and BlackBerry handheld are mated and ready for joint use in a jiffy. This process was commendably easy & smooth, as is probably expected.

I will now get down to reviewing usage of the device specifically and in brief:

Navigation & Platform
The decision to use QNX as a base for its own BB Tablet OS was a brave one RIM have outdone themselves here. The OS is fantastic and ultra fast. Multi-tasking is a breeze and its not for nothing that launching http://in.blackberry.com opens up to a banner of the PlayBook reading “The trick isn’t to do many things but to do them simultaneously”. The QNX core (been around since 1982, yes from before Linux!) offers super simple flipping between apps using a cards-like interface. I was amazed to see absolutely zero delay when bringing up the desktop from within Need for Speed Undercover and launching another app. What’s more, while the second app loaded, you could still see the game progress in its carded state!

The BlackBerry PlayBook multi-tasking

Image courtesy: mobygadgets.com

 

My biggest grouse against the Samsung Tab was the poor response of the OS to the touch, especially when compared to the iPad. This however isnt a concern on the PlayBook. The touchscreen performs a very easy, smooth scroll as well as touch function and comes a close second to the iPad – not such a bad thing!

What might frustrate users used to the iPad is the inconsistent working of the accelerometer function. In fact, its not so much a hardware malfunction as much as it is the software refusing to change orientation in most applications. Extremely annoying was the inability to rotate or ‘turn’ image attachments with emails. This, while rarely affecting everyday usage, is an easy poke for the Mac-tards against the PlayBook.

(Excuse the tech mumbo jumbo in the next para. Unavoidable 😀 )
Moving away from its conventional java platform to one which does not even support conventional Java apps is a brave move by RIM (BlackBerry phone apps will not work on the PlayBook). It will antagonize their developer community initially for sure but keeping larger interests in mind, good decision. The current set of available apps for the PlayBook is not very impressive. Sure you have a Facebook app customized for it but there’s no Twitter or Foursquare for now. In a surprise move, RIM is believed to have released an application run-time environment to support Android applications on the PlayBook. But as reported by Seth Weintraub in his March 2011 story on CNNMoney.com, the consistency of performance of the droid applications on RIM hardware will be left to be seen.

Initial final word: Super platform, great ease of navigation, Poor availability of apps for now.

Connectivity
To me, this is where the PlayBook scores its biggest win. While many may moan the launch of only the Wi-Fi version of the PlayBook in India, truth be said, its the only version you’ll only ever need – as long as you have a mobile phone with a 3G network that is. The PlayBook supports internet tethering with your mobile phone so you dont need to pay another telco richer by taking a separate plan for your pad. Yes, the vagaries of the relatively nascent 3G network in India is a bit of a bother but you’d have had to deal with the same even if the device supported 3G! The connection is established via bluetooth and my browsing experience thus far when connected to my BlackBerry 9780 using Vodafone’s 3G network has been comparable to using my 1mbps BSNL broadband line with my iPad.

Besides tethering, the pad of course comes with BlackBerry Bridge, a smart little app which allows your BlackBerry phone and PlayBook to be seamlessly connected.

The PlayBook offers a micro-USB port for connectivity with your computer while also doubling up as the charging pin. The 5300 mAh battery takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to charge with the AC adapter which comes with the PlayBook and about 6 to 7 hours with a BlackBerry phone charger. Battery life – too early to comment.

RIM has also decided to go one-up on Apple by offering a mini-HDMI output port to connect your device to your televisions and monitors. More on this further down in the review under Multimedia.

Browsing
The browser is incredible.
Built on the same Web-kit core which we are increasingly getting used to (Google Chrome & Safari are built on it), the browser renders web pages beautifully. Text is super sharp and makes for very easy reading, given its compact physical dimensions. Personally, browsing on the PlayBook has given me my best in-browser experience on any portable device till date, made possibly by nothing less than the browser and device’s support of Adobe Flash!! Yes, the suits at RIM unlike the stubborn fools at Cupertino have put user experience before obstinate corporate steadfastness to present the internet the way it is meant to be – in full color and motion. Needless to say, this also means that the business of voyeurism now has a new messiah!

Initial Final word: HTML 5 as well as Flash videos play seamlessly and make for a brilliant browsing experience.

Productivity
Coming from the fathers of mobile productivity, the PlayBook is a big let down in this department. The next few lines may sound startling and even Apple-like but is true. The BlackBerry PlayBook has no mail client of its own. You can only access your emails through a) Web mail & b) if they are on your BlackBerry mobile phone connected to the PlayBook through BlackBerry Bridge. So while this does mean superlative convergence for the BlackBerry fans (and users) of the world, I feel a struggling RIM might just have burnt a solid hole through its sales numbers by adopting this route. Through Bridge, mails were wonderfully mirrored between the phone and the pad. I did experience a few issues at first accessing attachments but they were soon rectified after a restart. Enterprise level integration I am told is very seamless and quite impressive though I have not tried the same personally.

The PlayBook does come with Slide-to-Go, Sheets-to-go and Doc-to-go preinstalled as well as an Adobe PDF Reader. So accessing your everyday work files are never an issue. Image attachments from the mail client, as mentioned earlier cannot be rotated or ‘turned’ which is a major irritant.

Initial last word: The PlayBook is a productivity let down.

Gaming
Probably the biggest surprise package of the PlayBook was the superb gaming capabilities the pad offered. The pad came pre-loaded with Tetris and Need for Speed Undercover, both optimized by their publishers for the BlackBerry PlayBook. The graphics were sharp and crystal clear and rendered the 3D graphics of NFS very well. The most impressive feature was the ergonomic response of the game to the hardware. ‘Driving’ in-game was fantastic and the compact size of the PlayBook definitely makes me want to game on it more than on the oddly sized iPad.

PlayBook-NFS

NFS Undercover for PlayBook splash screen.

Initial final word: PlayBook gaming ftw!

Multimedia
Honestly, was expecting very little here from the PlayBook despite all the hype that RIM has created over the past 9 months about the PlayBook’s multimedia capabilities. However, it seems like RIM’s decided to walk the talk! The PlayBook offers great display, super sound and very impressive cameras to combine and form a very capable multimedia device.

The sensible form factor of the hardware is further proven through the intelligent placement of the speakers on the sides of the display on the top panel. The sound is crisp and offers a decent amount of lows and highs. Mids? What’s that? :-p

Camera – RIM has outdone itself on this front! A 3MP front camera and a 5MP rear camera make for great flexibility to shoot on the move. What’s even more impressive is that video – the rear camera shoots true HD 1080p video – the first for any tablet or smartphone.

HDMI – The HDMI out is one of the showstoppers of this device. Using a mini-HDMI output port, you can view your content as is from the PlayBook on your HDMI compatible device like a monitor or an LCD / LED television. The output quality was remarkably good, especially while playing HD content.

Initial final word: Very capable multimedia performer. Earns many brownie points on sound, camera & extensibility.

So that’s that for now. My first 3 days’ impressions of the BlackBerry PlayBook. I gave away my iPad to a friend’s son in anticipation of this device. Yes, I did put a lot of faith into RIM’s first venture in the tablet space but I must say, I am not disappointed as of now.

I’d love to hear what you thought. So will you buy the iPad 2 or the Blackberry PlayBook?

Official Website: http://in.blackberry.com/playbook-tablet/
Download Specs: Click here